For this month’s The Free Press theme on “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” I’d like to write about my decision not to work any longer and how I came to it. By doing so, I also wish to speculate on whether I could have done this perhaps two decades earlier than I did and thus have had more of my life that was mine.
I was a college professor for many years. In 2008 I left the institution where I had long taught (and was a tenured full professor and part-time administrator) to take a job as a Dean at another school. The date of this move should clue you in on what happened: the economy went into full meltdown, layoffs occurred, and I did not have enough seniority at my new job to survive them. In January 2010, I was offered an “early retirement” buyout (my years of service elsewhere counted toward retirement, but not toward seniority). I figured (correctly, as it turned out) that if I did not take this offer, soon the layoffs would happen and my job would be gone without my having the incentives being offered. I somehow managed to time my exit perfectly: delaying accepting the offer (to keep working and drawing my salary) for a few months and then accepting it less than two weeks before it was withdrawn for others (who then were indeed laid off without the incentives).
These events in my career coincided with a decline in my father’s health: he has significant heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, a pesky retina problem, and—just as I was being laid off—had an attack of shingles that resulted in an auto-immune condition when his body’s defenses overreacted to the shingles outbreak. In addition to all his other problems, this disease made it such that he has trouble walking any distance at all and takes chemotherapy to keep it from getting worse (the chemo hasn’t seemed to make him any better, but I trust the doctors and they tell me it is keeping the symptoms from worsening).
For these reasons—and, frankly, because I knew I could not find another university job under the current economic conditions where faculty at colleges were being laid off right and left—I made the decision (rather suddenly actually) to stop working at age fifty and be “retired” so that I could give my father the help he needed and could spend my time as I chose and not as a job demanded.
My house at my “old job” had never sold as a result of the housing mess and years before my parents had moved to be near me at that job, so I moved back into my old house. I used the incentive money to pay off my mortgage, to buy a new highly fuel efficient car, and to put a new highly fuel efficient HVAC into my home. I was thus totally debt free—no mortgage, no credit card bills, no student loans, not owing a cent to anybody in the world—but without real income (I did teach an online class for almost nothing and have sold a handful of pieces of writing to magazines). I took what I had in the bank and divided it up by the number of months until I could draw my pension at age 60 and it turned out I could spend just over $600 a month without totally using up my savings (i.e., so I’d have a little “cushion” for emergencies). At some point—and sooner rather than later—I’ll have to move in with my father to keep him from having to go into a home. When that happens, if I can sell my house even at a bargain basement price, I’d have that additional money to help tide me over until I’m eligible for that pension (in just over seven years now).
So, I spend my days reading and writing, taking my father back and forth to the doctor and hospital, playing music (I own a piano) and listening to music, cooking, working in the yard, following sports (the only TV I ever watch), and sleeping (a year into my retirement, I had a horrific case of chicken pox—with episodes of confusion and delirium—which has left me needing twelve hours of sleep a night in order to be able to function).
I think my “partially voluntary retirement” is the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve certainly never been happier. I’m able to “do what I want” in multiple ways—not only in terms of how I spend my time, but in terms of having these precious days with my aging father. In terms of “volume,” I’m writing more than I have at any other time in my life (even when I was a publishing scholar or when I was a professional journalist many, many years ago) and I’m reading more than I have at any time since graduate school (and on a wider variety of topics than I could when I was reading to prepare for class and keep up on scholarship in my fields of expertise). This change in my life also fits nicely with both my religious and political beliefs. As a Quaker, I always liked to pretend to myself that I was not as much “of this world” as many other people, and as a Socialist I had promised myself as a teenager that I’d live my life while having as little to do with capitalism as I possibly could. This “new life” was a chance for me to test out my beliefs in my own existence to an extent which wasn’t possible when I was working.
So, when the editor of The Free Press announced the “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” theme, I initially thought I would have nothing to offer as I’ve left the world of work behind. Then I started thinking that perhaps many others were in my same shoes—being “retired” without being able to work until their previously chosen retirement date. Then I saw the horrible statistics on recent college graduates and the job market, and it occurred to me that many young people might be facing a lifetime of being unable fully to engage in the world of work. Perhaps my experiences could help them. [This is the only time in my life I’ve ever felt “older and wiser.”]
So, I looked around and thought to myself, “Knowing what I do now about the possibilities of living without working, what would I do if I were facing this situation as a youngster?”
I think there are viable options out there for the newly unemployed or the “never to be employed” for living their lives (or at least significant portions of their lives) outside the world of work.
I live in the rural South. In the “mill towns” near me, there are perfectly livable “mill houses” routinely for sale for under $10,000 (less than a year’s worth of student loans to a college student). [Though I don’t personally live in a “mill house,” many people drive cars that cost more than my house did.] I looked around on the internet and in a number of large cities (Detroit, Newark, Oakland) there are row houses for sale for comparable amounts for those who would prefer urban living. One advantage I have in the rural setting is being able to garden and thus produce some of my own food. [I also have friends who hunt and who generously share meat with me—enough so that I haven’t bought any meat at the grocery store in months and months.]
So, let’s imagine I’m a new high school graduate and can’t see going into an adult lifetime’s worth of debt for a college education which might not lead to a job anyway. I think I’d take my savings from my jobs (which I had intended to help pay for college) and either buy outright or put the down payment on a “mill house” in the South or a “row house” in a city. Then for, say, eight to twelve years, I’d work some (probably minimum wage) jobs (up to three of them—first shift, second shift, and weekend) and save every penny I could squeeze. I honestly believe I’d then be in a position at age thirty at the latest to live the rest of my life without having to work.
Now this depends upon the eighteen year old me being “like” the fifty-two year old me: willing to live a monkish existence in order not to work, having no expensive tastes (I did have a taste for fine wines, but I built up a nice cellar while I was still working), and being happy mostly staying home. My personal sole regret would be that from age twenty to age fifty I travelled extensively and I would have missed that under my little plan here. But the world now is a more expensive, less predictable, and more dangerous place and I’m not sure at all I’d do the travelling now that I did quite eagerly then. I should also note that my plan wouldn’t allow for the incredible expense of having children (I never wanted them, so this isn’t a factor for me, but it might well be an important factor for many people).
I know one objection people would make already: what about health insurance? Well, first, loads of people are losing their coverage every year and even having a job now doesn’t automatically come with such insurance any more. Second, if the PPACA survives until a year from January, everyone (in theory) will be covered anyway.
Over the years, I built up an extensive (and expensive) scholarly library on subjects of interest to me and my plan wouldn’t allow for that. For me, that would be an issue, but most people aren’t scholars and they (and, now, I) have the public library (with its interlibrary loan system) to fill our reading needs.
So, I’d say I’m personally very happy with the turn of events that made me permanently unemployed starting at age fifty and I think it would be realistic for a youngster just graduating from high school who could be happy with the kind of life I live now to have that for himself or herself starting at age thirty or so.
[The ideas in this piece have been influenced by an adult lifetime’s worth of reading. Of particular note, I would mention Paul LaFargue’s The Right to be Lazy, Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle, Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work, and the many works on the concept of “exodus”—i.e., just refusing to participate in capitalism—by Toni Negri.]